The very mention of exercise turns many people off, and often invokes a reaction of, “Forget it.” But why? Exercise is essential to a healthy life. Without regular exercise, we suffer premature ailments and unnecessary pains of many kinds. So why are people so resistant to exercise?

In part, it may be because our culture no longer supports staying in shape. When I went to school, we had physical education classes three times weekly, recess outdoors twice daily and lots of sports programs to join. My friends and I spent our childhoods running around, playing games, playing sports, bicycling, running, climbing trees, making general mischief and walking all over the place. It was fun. We were skinny and toned and full of energy.

In those days, the organization now called the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition had a big national presence, and we were exhorted to maintain good health through regular exercise. Today, as many schools eliminate physical education classes and cut down on recess time, physical fitness seems to have been relegated to the dustbin of social initiatives. There seems to be a clear divide between those who stay active through exercise, and those who don't.

To many, the word exercise suggests going to a gym and working out with weights and machines. But this is just one of many options, and not necessarily the best. For those who would like to get in better shape and be healthier overall -- but don’t want to don a sweatsuit or pump iron -- there is a simple and highly effective solution. It is called walking.

Walking, except for those who are disabled and therefore not ambulatory, is an exercise that is essential to life, feels better the more you do it and offers tremendous health benefits. For starters, walking helps burn calories. Amidst the epidemic of obesity in the U.S., walking could be used by many as a way to easily slim down.

Walking at a pace that feels stimulating is great for the brain. It enhances circulation in that big gray organ and improves the production of important neurochemicals, enhancing brain function, improving mood and helping to reduce age-related memory loss. Walking helps you stay sharp longer, hedging against the mental dimness caused by inactivity.

With cardiovascular disease as the primary killer of U.S. adults, it’s worth knowing that regular walking helps to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure. In other words, walking can actually keep you alive. And while walking aids your heart, it also boosts your immune system, keeping you healthy and fending off many types of illness.

If you are stressed out, walking is Rx #1. Feel stressed? Overloaded? Instead of reaching for  Xanax, get outside and take a two-mile walk. Breathe as you move, and allow the walking to steadily reduce the concentration of damaging stress hormones in your blood. You’ll feel far better, and lighter in spirit. Plus, you’ll discover that even though you expend little energy walking, the exercise gives you more energy than you use -- enough so that you won’t need to reach for a can of soda or a caffeine-loaded “energy” drink. Those garbage products are health destroyers, while walking is a health builder.

Walking strengthens your legs, enhances circulation, strengthens and tones your lower back and lower abdomen, and enhances digestion and elimination. It can even give you a more shapely butt. Now there’s a reason to get up and go! Got a sore back? Loosen up with a long walk. The odds are excellent that you will feel relief.

Walking is the simplest form of exercise that exists. Put one foot in front of another and go. Walk at a speed that ups your heart rate without exhausting you. Two or more miles daily can revolutionize your life. Walk more if you can. You don’t need special apparatus, special clothing or even shoes for that matter. A barefoot walk on a beach is a fine way to get trim, healthier and less stressed. Just get out there.

The expression “use it or lose it” applies to the human body. Why be fat and unhappy? If you walk every day, it will become a healthy, happy habit. Stop reading this article. Go take a walk -- now.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at